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Raising a Child With Good Manners

When he was 2, my son Drew was charming in his own toddlerish way, although his charm did not often include the phrase "Thank you." His lack of social graces seemed, to me, perfectly excusable in a shy little boy who clung to my leg. So I was caught by surprise last year when, at 5, my shy guy became a miniature tyrant, unwilling to sit still at the table, refusing to converse with guests, and demanding "Breakfast now!" and "Tie my shoes!" We corrected him, we issued counterdemands, but sadly, we also started to tune out. Then, at my friend Roxanne's house, he held out his cup and ordered her to refill it, as if he were speaking to a lowly 'droid.

She turned and flashed me a "You put up with this?" look.

I never meant to  -- a polite child like one of the von Trapp offspring in The Sound of Music was what I had in mind. But in that moment I knew my efforts had failed. Part of the problem was I didn't know what was reasonable to expect at my son's age. Well-behaved at school, he usually saved his rudeness for home. Was he tired and cranky? Restless? Just being a kid?

As it turns out, I was tolerating bad manners when I shouldn't have. After talking to other parents and a few experts, I learned that every child, even a shy, tired, cranky, and defiant one, is capable of age-appropriate good manners. Not perfect manners and not all the time, but a general habit of polite behavior at the table, on the playground, at school, and even when Mom's on the phone. Good manners show respect and caring; bad manners hurt people's feelings. Or, to put it in terms my son would understand: "How would you feel if someone used bad manners with you?"

It's never too late to teach your child to be polite, but it's smart to start early.

Contributing editor Jane Meredith Adams, a mom of two, also writes for Health.

Age 1 to 2: Don't Expect Much

They can barely walk, talk, or remember anything that happened more than a day ago, but even young toddlers can begin to learn the basics of polite behavior. Just don't expect them to fully understand  -- or practice  -- what you're teaching them right now.

• Make manners part of the conversation. Thinking about other people's feelings is the root of polite behavior, so encourage your child to do this. Explain that when we help our neighbor hunt for her lost keys in the playground, she feels good and so do we. Point out how kind the cashier is at the supermarket. In fact, talking to young children about caring for others helps them absorb this value without fully understanding it, according to Marvin Berkowitz, Ph.D., a dad and a professor of character education at the College of Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

• Take temperament into account. Some 15-month-olds are outgoing and wave hello and goodbye to everyone on the block. Others are slower to warm up and may not say hi to a soul, let alone wave. That's okay. Because of temperament differences, there's a wide variation in how kids respond to prompting.

For a toddler who isn't comfortable being the center of attention at a birthday party, being polite may mean she whispers "Thank you" into your ear and asks you to convey the message. Another option is to have her express thanks by drawing a picture and delivering it.

Keep showing your quiet child what being polite looks like: a regular pattern of "Please," "Thank you," "Excuse me," and "I'm sorry."

• Choose one rule. Throwing food, standing in the high chair, crying: 18-month-olds know how to make mealtime exciting. Their brain development isn't far enough along for them to have the motor or emotional skills for good table etiquette, so keep it simple. Really simple. Start with one rule, such as "When you're eating, you're sitting" or "No feet on the table." Repeat often.

Boy, have I taken these lessons to heart. And the results show. The other morning when Drew said, "Water, please," in a superfast voice devoid of emotion, I told him that the sentence I wanted to hear was this: "Mom, may I please have a glass of water?" When he said he didn't want to say that, I explained for the tenth time that I speak nicely to him and I expect him to speak nicely to me. It's good for the family and it's good for the world, I told him.

The next morning, all on his own, he spoke the sentence I wanted to hear. I have hope.